In a speech to education charity the National Extension College Tory education spokesman David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts has argued that social mobility is declining in the UK and that this is in part because the opportunities offered by the expansion of higher education have mostly been taken up by the daughters of affluent families, thereby consolidating the economic status quo. 'Increasing equality between the sexes has meant increased inequality between social classes,' he said. Speaking on Five Live later he reiterated that the advance of women was to be welcomed and, in what may be a first for a leading Conservative, said that 'feminism' was 'a good thing.' In the same interview, though, he underlined another theme of his speech which was the familiar one from the Right that education has been 'feminised' and that more should be done to help boys get on at school, such as improving vocational courses, encouraging more men into teaching and so on.
I've yet to read the whole speech (which has yet to become available online), though had it included precise policy commitments I'm sure they would have been reported. So what clues did it and the Five Live interview contain about the direction of Tory thinking on education and social mobility under David Cameron? There was a clear underlining of a continuing belief in meritocracy and in helping education foster it. At the same time there was concern that the success of middle class young women in entering higher education was hindering social mobility on a broader front and that the general character of contemporary education culture works against the interests of boys as a whole.
Where, then, will Tory priorities eventually lie? Is Willetts hoping to reduce the higher ed. chances of middle class daughters in some way so that the less well-off of either sex may prosper? This seems unlikely. Is he considering an across-the-board de-'feminisation' of education in order to help boys catch up with girls? Not, I wouldn't think, if those same middle-class daughters and their politically-aware parents were likely to be penalised even if they thought their sons would benefit. What options, then, are available if the goal of greater social mobility is to be served without alienating key groups of voters? Let's leave aside for the moment potentially important questions about precisely which groups of boys are doing worse than girls recently and how valid it is in this context to make universal sex-versus-sex comparisons in the first place. Instead, let's try to guess what is going on in 'Two Brains's head.
Point one: mustn't upset middle-classes.
Point two: mustn't look like you've got it in for girls.
Point three: notwithstanding point two, must help boys;
Point four: nothwithstanding point one, must promote ideal of meritocracy.
Point five: some of these things are contradictory unless...
Point six: we facilitate the creation of lots and lots of different sorts of schools.
Point seven: conservatives don't believe in concentrating power in the state.
I think Willets is pondering breaking-up the state education system more radically than 'new' Labour is presently practising. He is envisaging much greater freedom for individuals and communities to set up privately-run or charitable schools designed to meet the needs of very particular groups of children, such as the one for black boys in Newham that David Cameron visited straight after he was elected Tory leader. This would not be out of keeping with long-standing Tory aspirations. But how far he ultimately goes will depend on the result of a political calculation about the appeal of such a policy to floating, middle class voters. There may be more of those than there have been before. And they may include many who are coming to believe that the present system will always fail the young of many disadvantaged sections of society. Those who view the prospect of a more privatised, segregated, even sectarian education system with horror had better get their arguments against it in good shape.